Put in a good word for God

Darwin's Angel

October 19, 2007

Jesus told us to love our enemies. But, perhaps understandably, the Christians are getting downright irritated by the new crop of atheists and are starting to fight back. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion has argued that religious belief is silly, naive, outdated and, moreover, downright dangerous. Think of an evil, double it, square it, add on ten, and the answer is religion.

Now, spurred to action, a slew of counterblasts is issuing forth from the presses, arguing that religion is indeed a good thing, that Dawkins and thinkers like him are ignorant of the history of theology (and much else), and that life would be diminished immeasurably without the spiritual and holy.

John Cornwell deserves a medal, if only for his ecumenical ability to take on all sides. Having roughed up the Catholic Church with his claims about Pope Pius XII and the Vatican's failure to combat the Nazi threat, he now enters the fray against the atheists. Perhaps to take the personal sting out of his very critical review of Dawkins's ideas, Cornwell writes not in his own voice but in that of an angel.

This suggests that the only readers of his book will be those already on his side. Why should a non-believer read a book by a member of the heavenly host? Admittedly, Cornwell's approach does allow him to be quite funny about the immense self-esteem of Dawkins. Like Cornwell, I too was left in a state of shock, hardly knowing whether to laugh or cry, when at the beginning of The God Delusion we are told that the manuscript was read aloud not once but twice by Mrs Dawkins, an experience that, we learn, was much enhanced by the fact that she is a trained actor. I try to imagine what would happen if I asked my wife to read from The Collected Works of Michael Ruse . I imagine she would have to be lifted from the floor where she had collapsed laughing.

Cornwell works briskly through Dawkins's arguments, both those against the existence of God and those for the existence of a link between evil and the practice of religion. Many of his responses are fairly standard. I confess that I was a little disappointed that he did not make more of the egregious claims that the truly vile social systems of the 20th century - one thinks of Germany, Russia, and China, for starters - were ultimately the causal effects of religion. I would have thought that, with Cornwell's knowledge and expertise, a really good and informative discussion could have been given here.

The rather brief form of the book meant that some very serious issues had to be rushed. Take the problem of evil. Cornwell refers to the episode of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov , presenting it as the most devastating recent statement of the problem - why does an all- powerful, all-good God allow suffering and pain? But he does not really answer the question. It is true that Dostoevsky thought that the spirituality of the younger brother Alyosha counters the scepticism of the older brother Ivan. Does this indeed work? Unfortunately, Cornwell has already moved on.

Like most books, Darwin's Angel is not that bad and not that good. It has no index. That is bad.

- Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister professor of philosophy, Florida State University. His most recent book is Darwinism and its Discontents .

Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion

Author - John Cornwell
Publisher - Profile Books
Pages - 160
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 9781846680489

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